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2009 Transportation Bill

Transit Riders Launch Grassroots Lobbying Push in Dire Political Climate

Advocates for urban transit riders in 14 metro areas climbed the Hill today to pitch lawmakers face-to-face on the need for extra federal transit operating aid, a grassroots lobbying effort that could face considerable challenges even as Democrats craft a new jobs bill with a focus on infrastructure.

422093580_050ae3f4c9.jpgA top aide to House transport committee chief Jim Oberstar (D-MN) briefed transit riders today. (Photo: BikePortland via Flickr)

Today's event, organized by the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), brought local community advocates to the House's Longworth building for roundtable sessions with aides to several members of Congress.

Federal Transit Administration executive director Matthew Welbes briefed the group on his agency's new shift away from a solely cost-effectiveness-based standard for approving new funding plans, and TEN co-chair Sarah Mullins hailed a victory for transit equity in Minneapolis, where light rail planners have added three new stops in lower-income areas.

But as the grassroots lobbyists prepared to make the case for more transit operating aid in the coming Senate jobs bill -- the House version allowed cities to spend 10 percent of their Washington funds on keeping trains and buses running -- Jim Kolb, staff director for House transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), was on hand with a candid assessment of the battle facing transit riders.

Kolb began by outlining an impasse that may be familiar to Streetsblog Capitol Hill readers: Oberstar's $500 billion, six-year transportation bill, which aims to fundamentally shift federal policymaking away from a road-centric perspective, is languishing as Democrats decline to find a way to pay for it.

Meanwhile, the uncertain flurry of short-term extensions to the current law and the stimulus' decision to route transport funding through state DOTs has given defenders of the status quo time to dig in their heels.

"A lot of folks who work for state DOTs have real concerns about the bill we put out," Kolb told the groups. "They don't want to have a conversation about accountability -- we have a different vision with our bill."

But with more than 10 percent for transit operating proving a hard sell in itself, getting a spending-shy Congress on board for that new vision is likely to be even more difficult. As Kolb put it:

The biggest problem we're facing is an inability to fund the program. Frankly, we need an increase in the gas tax, or some alternative funding source, which nobody has been able to coalesce around in this current environment. ... A renewed focus on deficits [and] a complete aversion to taxes [has] made our jobs pretty tough.

That wasn't deterring local advocates like Illinoisan Shelly Heideman, a Springfield area resident who planned to visit with aides to local Rep. Aaron Schock (R) today. Heideman said her message to Schock, who holds the GOP seat once occupied by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, would emphasize the importance of local job creation through increased transit funding and federal high-speed rail aid.

House Republicans have lately resisted most attempts at bipartisan consensus, even on bread-and-butter issues such as transportation, but "we've been working very hard to develop a relationship with [Schock]", Heideman said. When meeting with any lawmaker, she added, "we just hope they have a compassionate heart."

On the Senate side, transit advocates planned to press for $16 billion in the upper chamber's coming jobs bill, with the flexibility for $9 billion of that money to be used on transit operating budgets.

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